As theaters, museums, and concert halls struggle during these covidious times, I worry about the respiratory system of the arts. Only a year and half after I took my current job co-directing the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College, which archives the work of seven culture-animating British Christians, the center’s museum and research-room were shut down. On the plus side, a podcast we developed has over 50,000 listens from nearly 70 countries, including several predominantly Muslim nations. People around the world seem to crave insight about historical contexts, psychological and sociological tensions, theological issues, and artistic techniques that inform the fiction of authors like C.S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, and George MacDonald. What they crave, in other words, is Christian liberal arts. (See wheaton.edu/listen/wade-center-podcast).
How might cinema satisfy this craving as well? One of the authors we archive at the Wade, J.R.R. Tolkien, has been called the father of modern fantasy fiction, and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films help celebrate his “sub-creation,” as Tolkien once called his work. Unfortunately, Jackson’s cinema success has led to a slew (perhaps a slough) of unreflective fantasy films and television series that merely feed appetites for other-world sex and violence, offering not a single original thought to digest. But there are exceptions, and I would like to focus on a film, available on Netflix, that grapples with the state of the liberal arts.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an unusual film, as is to be expected of a Coen Brothers production. Made up of six unrelated short “Westerns,” the anthology movie was nominated for numerous awards, the National Board of Review naming it one of the top ten films for 2018. Interestingly, the movie presents its stories as adaptations of tales from an old book, allowing viewers to see not only epigraphs to color plates that accompany each story in the book, but also the closing paragraph of each story—as though in acknowledgment of narrative cinema’s origins. The first story, the eponymous “Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” spectacularizes what has made the Coen Brothers famous: outrageously silly parody, with brief moments of stylized gore that subvert any sense of realism. Serious cinephiles may feel like turning away to better fare. But if they continue watching, they will see that each succeeding story gets more serious, until the film ends eliciting reflections about the purpose of existence. It is as though the first film story draws attention to the state of contemporary cinema, wherein the biggest financial successes today—based on comic-book clichés—have little to do with topics that drive the liberal arts.
The second story is a bit more sober: more like television comedy than satire, with James Franco playing a humorously hapless bank robber. It is the third story, “Meal Ticket,” that delivers a powerful commentary on the liberal arts. Liam Neeson plays a laconic impresario who drives his wagon from town to town in order to display a man without arms and legs: a deformity that reflects historical realities from America’s Civil War. The amputee earns his “meal ticket” by powerfully reciting great literary works. Witnessing the articulate passion with which the amputee performs Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” passages from Shakespeare, and lines from Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, educators cannot help being struck with the way great writing has fueled the liberal arts for centuries: not a topic often explored in cinema. Our hearts therefore break as we see fewer and fewer people turn out for the amputee’s breath-taking recitations, audiences preferring to watch a performing chicken.
There seems to be a similar turning away from the liberal arts today. The last several years before I accepted the job as Wade co-director, I taught English at a Christian college, where I heard more and more students say, “I would love to be an English major, but my parents won’t let me because there’s no money in it.” I, of course, gave the standard answer about the need in any profession for interpretive acuity and informed critical thinking, but to no avail. As in the aptly named “Meal Ticket,” many liberal arts institutions are turning into amputees, cutting off their theater, philosophy and language majors while investing in programs aligned with making money.
While the deleterious desire for money is merely suggested by “Meal Ticket,” the next film in the Coen anthology makes the problem blatant. In “All Gold Canyon,” a prospector played by a grizzled Tom Waits searches for gold in a gorgeous Colorado valley. Digging holes all over the countryside, he not only ruins the landscape but also drives away beautiful butterflies and a majestic horned stag. The search ends in death as another gold-digger seeks to benefit from the prospector’s work, as though endorsing John D. Rockefeller’s Darwinist praise of capitalism: “the growth of a large business is merely the survival of the fittest.”
The search for prosperity is more subtle in the next story, which focuses on a wagon train on its way to Oregon. Suggesting that it is more important to start a family with a God-honoring and gracious spouse than to discover an “all gold canyon,” the film nevertheless shows that “the best laid schemes o’ mice and men / Gang aft a-gley,” as Robert Burns famously put it.
The final story, “The Mortal Remains,” reminds me of another famous poem, this one by Emily Dickinson, who describes riding in a carriage: “Because I could not stop for Death / He kindly stopped for me.” The carriage in this last Coen story is transporting a corpse on its roof while five people underneath discuss the meaning of life. Unfortunately, the one Christian on board reduces faith to “moral and spiritual hygiene”: a clichéd reduction that Hollywood enjoys perpetuating. I left the film praying that Christ might better animate our culture through the liberal arts, if even in amputated form. Perhaps, rather than generating more Darwinian capitalists, Christian colleges can nurture fiction makers able to make foundational truths come alive through acts of sub-creation.